The right way to check a reference: six steps to a zero firing rate

By Claudio Fernández-Aráoz

Over the course of my career, I’ve fired only two people, and both were workers at my family ranch. (I actually rehired one of them a few years later.) In my roles as an operations and logistics line manager in Argentina, a management consultant in Europe, and a leader at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, however, my firing rate has been zero. As an executive search consultant, I aim to provide the same thing for clients: very few of the candidates I’ve placed have been fired, and none have in the short term.

How is a near-zero firing rate achieved? With great reference checking. Of course, you should assess potential hires in many other ways, too. But reference checks are by far the most important step in making sure that you’re not about to bring on someone who you’ll soon want to let go.

This process can be tricky. For starters, you must follow the laws in your country and state, including the candidates’ consent to be checked and their right to access the written references provided. You must also find a way to get past referees’ reluctance (for legal and other reasons) to tell you the whole truth — a tendency cleverly humorized in a little book called The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R.), which includes examples such as ‘You’ll be lucky if you can get this person to work for you,’ ‘I am pleased to report that he is a former colleague of mine,’ and the more subtle ‘I assure you that no person would be better for the job.’

So how do you make sure you’re getting the right people to give you their honest assessments?

First, make sure to agree with the candidate on a comprehensive and relevant list of referees to call, including former bosses, peers, and subordinates at several previous places of employment. Narrow your list by thinking about the specific skills you want to measure: former bosses are great at assessing strategic orientation and achievement drive; peers can help to measure influence; subordinates are often the best judges of leadership.

Second, provide the referee with the right incentives. Start the conversation by highlighting how important it is to have a reliable reference, since the candidate won’t benefit from getting a job in which he’s likely to fail. Explain that you realize no candidate is perfect. All have their individual strengths and weaknesses, and it’s useful to know as much as possible so that if the person is hired you can provide the right kind of integration and support. Speak in person or on the phone rather than via email; it’s easier to solicit the whole truth when you can hear hesitation or emotion in a person’s voice or see it on their face.

Third, help the referee avoid frequent biases. Avoid broad questions such as ‘What can you tell me about Carol?’ since the answer would probably focus on her best or most salient general characteristic (rather than the one most relevant to the job), which taints everything that follows because the referee wants to appear consistent. Instead, after checking the person’s relationship with the candidate, be specific about the role you’re trying to fill and its challenges. Ask whether the referee has seen the candidate perform under similar circumstances. Then, and only then, ask what his or her exact responsibilities were, how he or she performed, and what the consequences were.

Fourth, make sure to ask referees about the candidate’s social and emotional-intelligence-based competencies, focusing on self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. We tend to hire people on the ‘hard’ (IQ and experience) but fire them for their failure to master the ‘soft.’ References are one of the best ways to assess the latter.

Fifth, check values and cultural fit. Even if your candidate has all the relevant competencies, these factors will be key to the person’s portability — that is, his or her ability to succeed in a new organization. In addition to the essential acid test of integrity, you should determine whether the candidate’s views on things like time orientation, a farming versus hunting sales approach, and the balance between collaboration and competition match yours and those of future colleagues and teammates.

Finally, in addition to checking that the candidate can perform well today and get along with the team, make sure to also talk to referees about his or her ability to keep learning, adapting, and growing in a world in which jobs are constantly changing and becoming more complex. Ask for examples of situations in which the person has shown the hallmarks of potential: curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination.

Getting to a zero firing rate isn’t easy. But it’s something to which we all should aspire. Great reference checks are the first step to achieving it.

This article first appeared at HBR.